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Tainted but worthwhile

Michael Ignatieff failed at politics, but strongly defends it.

Updated: February 15, 2014 12:21:37 am

Michael Ignatieff failed at politics, but strongly defends it.

In 2005, Michael Ignatieff left a teaching job at Harvard to enter politics in his native Canada with hopes of becoming prime minister. He quickly came to understand how politics is different from academia. In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.

In academia, the goal is to come up with a timeless truth. In politics, timing is everything, knowing when the time is ripe for a certain proposal. In academia, the idea is to take a stand based on what you believe; in politics, the idea is to position yourself along a left-right axis in a way that will differentiate you from your opponents and help you win a majority. In academia, you are rewarded for candour, intellectual rigour and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.

Naturally, Ignatieff found the transition to politics more difficult than he imagined. He started his career well enough. He was elected to parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. But he was in over his head and the victim of inexorable historical trends. He was not an effective opposition leader. In his first national election, he and his party were crushed. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat. It was a humiliating failure which ended his political career.

Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, is the best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes.

Ignatieff was first invited to run for office by some backstage power brokers, even though he hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years. He agreed but wasn’t initially sure why he wanted to do it beyond some vague sense that it would honour his parents. In parliament, he became a total partisan, putting, as one must, loyalty to the group above loyalty to truth. He learned that when you are attacking your opponent, you have to hit his strengths because his weaknesses will take care of themselves. Political discourse, he came to see, is not really a debate about issues; it is a verbal contest to deny your opponents of standing, or as we would say, legitimacy.

But Ignatieff ultimately delivers a strong defence of politics. Politicians should never imagine themselves superior to the process they are engaged in. Politicians bind people together into communities and nations, he argues. To be a politician is to be “worldly and sinful and yet faithful and fearless at the same time. You put your own immodest ambitions in the service of others. You hope that your ambitions will be redeemed by the good you do.”

Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity often give up, because the life can be miserable. The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programmes can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realised what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.

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